The search for “levers” to mobilize the female “masses”
The Socialist Women’s League of West Berlin (SFB) saw the capitalist means of production as the root of women’s oppression. Since in capitalism women continued to work in isolation as housewives, they would only be able to change their situation if they emerged from this isolation and participated in the production process. The journal Pelagea, which was published by the SFB, had this to say about the subject:
Only then will they be able to grasp their situation and recognize the causes and connections that have led to their current circumstances. It is in this process of growing awareness and politicization that women’s solidarity develops, which is necessary for the struggle against oppression and exploitation that must be conducted in concert with men.[i]
A Soviet poster on the cover of the journal Pelagea, here no. 3 for 1972.
Socialist parties refused to view women’s oppression as a power conflict between the sexes, since this would have divided the working class. Above all, however, this discussion would have challenged their leadership claims:
We initially organize separately as women, in order to discover the points of departure for specific women’s agitation through theoretical analysis. We regard this as a precondition for fulfilling our duty in the class struggle under the leadership of the Communist Party.[ii]
It would be incorrect to view the SFB within the context of feminist groupings as a continuation of the Action Council and forerunner to the women’s centers. On the contrary, the SFB vehemently opposed feminist positions. It was only years later that it laid claim to the terms feminist and autonomous.
In the years between the disbanding of the Action Council in 1969 and the founding of the women’s group of Homosexual Action West Berlin (HAW) in 1972 and the Berlin women’s center in 1973 (Bread and Roses, founded in 1971, was not public), the SFB was the only place for activist women in Berlin. This infuriated those of us who later started the Berlin women’s center. This association with its authoritarian structures, which acted as a branch of the Socialist Unity Party of West Berlin (SEW), bound activist women through ideological training courses. Rita Mühlbauer already emphasized the authoritarian mindset cultivated in the SFB in 1972:
Flexible, fluctuating groups now appear as a threat, since they lack effective controls… Fears of competition and conflicts over authority that weigh upon the groups (women blossom into authority figures too) are neutralized by declaring advantages in information and achievement to be ‘functional’, i.e., meaningful, and legitimizing them within hierarchies. Anyone with the requisite energy can rise to the position of training facilitator.[iii]
Problems facing women are considered at most from the perspective of mobilizing them for the class struggle. The dogmatists regard the mass of women as material to be approached with tactical skill. The subject of sexuality is considered solely as a ‘hook.’ They fear any campaign that is merely ‘reformist’, that is, oriented towards nascent, for instance feminist, interests. New needs are small-mindedly ignored unless they can serve as ‘levers.’[iv]
The report by the autonomous groups at the women’s congress in Munich[v] shows that even in February 1973, many women’s groups offered instruction in political economy and felt an allegiance to socialism. The minutes mention “dry theorizing and a permanent obsession with our relationship to the working class” as well as a search for the proper levers: “Currently discussing how they can recruit women in the unions and other areas… want to try to get to women through union training courses.”
In her 1988 essay “Perspektiven eines sozialistischen Feminismus” (Perspectives on a Socialist Feminism), Frigga Haug—the central figure in the SFB—expresses regrets about the SFB’s narrow standpoint:
To us, the slogan ‘my body belongs to me’ … did not seem to go one whit beyond [mere] civil liberties… Thus we overlooked the manifold political dimensions of the struggle against the abortion ban, which could have brought us into a veritable network of domination and exploitation.[vi]
She has written elsewhere of the exemplary significance of the abortion debate:
And although we found it important… to emphasize the scandalous nature of the vile practices of abortion doctors, the feminist movement was also in a certain sense more radical than we were.[vii]
What is more,
The minutes of every meeting show that we were constantly asking ourselves why we were organizing autonomously. We felt pressured to justify ourselves to two sides. We were constantly fighting the temptation to put the woman question second.[viii]
In retrospect, Frigga Haug notes of the feminist movement:
The women of the new movement were above all conspicuous, thereby overstepping the boundaries of our societal upbringing as ‘women’: reticence, modesty, inconspicuousness, morality.[ix]
She observes enviously:
… having cast off the socialist fetters, the new autonomous movement skipped blithely across the country. Soon there was not a village without a women’s group, not an area left untouched… It opened up ever-new spaces in which domination was sighted and liberation rehearsed… The movement took over an entire way of life.[x]
It was difficult to politicize the women within her own organization, however,
because we also had trouble getting excited about our way of posing the women question—we repeatedly dealt with matters of women’s training, kindergartens, employment, the struggle over the issue of working-class women (did we have enough proletarians in our ranks and who exactly were they?)….[xi]
According to Frigga Haug, it was inexperience of all things that was responsible for the socialist women’s hesitant approach and thinking.
We were not experienced enough to trust our own experiences, and too theoretical to recognize the strengths of the kind of spontaneistic praxis evident in feminist actions. They revealed how dominance is conveyed in everyday life and pointed to the petty bourgeois aspects within ourselves, too, by calling into question our habitual way of life… Everyday life is the realm of norms and values, of morality and custom, language and wordless communication. And it is the battleground of the feminist movement. The latter thus does not formulate the contradictions (as the socialist women do) in a way that focuses on conflicts with the ruling regulation of society, with markets and contracts. Instead, women question what is mutually agreed normality, which to that extent perpetuates oppression.[xii]
But where were the significantly younger women’s center women supposed to have acquired their advantage of greater experience? What characterized us was less experience than radicalism in our political assessment of women’s situation. The socialist women, in contrast, continued to view the woman question as a secondary contradiction beneath a primary one, as Frigga Haug herself notes:
We posed questions about women’s situation—and this was true of socialist women in organizations more generally—as they presented themselves as questions relating to women within the social system: kindergartens, low wage groups, women’s unemployment, the poor vocational training of girls… This made them expressible as politics. They reveal and are violations of market laws, contracts, law and equality. In fact, the kind of method we chose leads to a politics of reforms.[xiii]
To overstep the “the boundaries of our societal upbringing as ‘women’: reticence, modesty, inconspicuousness, morality”[xiv] was something with which the youth revolt and the anti-authoritarian movement had begun, developing their cultural revolutionary power and perspective, until, well, until the leftist cadre parties forced a return to authoritarian structures. It was the new, autonomous women’s movement that was the first to overcome this paralysis and find its way back to rebelliousness and courage.
[i] Pelagea. Berliner Materialien zur Frauenemanzipation, ed. Sozialistischer Frauenbund Westberlin (SFB) 2/1971.
[ii] Pelagea, 2/1971.
[iii] Rita Mühlbauer, “Strategiemodell der neuen Frauenbewegung,” in Anita Albus et al (eds), Maskulin–Feminin. Die Sexualität ist das Unnatürlichste von der Welt (Munich, 1972), p. 238.
[iv] Mühlbauer, “Strategiemodell,” p. 239.
[v] On this, see the chapter National Overview (1973).
[vi] Frigga Haug, “Perspektiven eines sozialistischen Feminismus,” in Autonome Frauenredaktion (ed.), Frauenbewegungen in der Welt, vol. 1: Westeuropa (Hamburg, 1988), p. 32.
[vii] Haug, “Perspektiven,” p. 34.
[viii] Haug, “Perspektiven,” p. 33.
[ix] Haug, “Perspektiven,” p. 34.
[x] Haug, “Perspektive,” p. 34.
[xi] Haug, “Perspektiven,” p. 38.
[xii] Haug, “Perspektiven,” p. 40.
[xiii] Haug, “Perspektiven,” p. 39–40.
[xiv] Haug, “Perspektiven,” p. 34.